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The Unseen Criminals of the United States The Unseen Criminals of the United States

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The Unseen Criminals of the United States

A Minnesota-based group interviews people whose crimes went unnoticed to change the perception of those who did get caught.

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photo of Marina Koren
December 6, 2013

Everyone is a criminal.

That's at least according to a Minnesota-based awareness project that is collecting stories of ordinary citizens without criminal records, the people who knowingly broke the law without getting caught.

A quarter of Minnesotans have an official criminal record, but the group behind the collection, called We Are All Criminals, are convinced that many more walk among them. Such individuals, the group explains, do not have to carry their crimes, many of them as seemingly innocuous as minor traffic violations, into future applications for jobs, college, or housing like the people who were arrested or convicted. The group's prompt for the 75 percent of record-free Minnesotans: "What have you had the luxury to forget?"

 

The majority of people already interviewed admitted to "numerous offenses," according to the group's website. They include people most of society would not imagine as hardened criminals: doctors, lawyers, social workers, and students. The "point is less that we're all bad people, and more that those who are caught aren't really all that worse than the rest of us," writes Smithsonian's Rose Eveleth about the criminal histories that never saw consequences.

The project picks up on an ongoing movement to change the perception of what it means to be a perpetrator. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has pushed for a crackdown on employers who illegally discriminate against job applicants based on criminal history. Using criminal background in employment decisions, in some cases, violates part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Critics say that legislation pushing to keep companies and businesses in the dark about their potential employees' criminal pasts puts staff and the public in danger. Employers currently have the right to ask potential candidates about arrest and conviction records. "However," the EEOC's website states, "using such records as an absolute measure to prevent an individual from being hired could limit the employment opportunities of some protected groups and thus cannot be used in this way."

Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, which means most offenders are on parole and probation, and some are looking for work. Some employers may get stuck between a rock and a hard place, risking a lawsuit from the federal agency for rejecting an applicant for a criminal background that make the decision-makers uneasy.

This year, Minnesota joined several other states in passing a "ban the box" measure, which, starting next year, would prohibit employers from asking about or investigating job candidates' criminal history until applicants get an interview or an offer.

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